On our first afternoon in Cairo, we stepped into the Egyptian Museum. With rooms upon rooms of statuary and scrolls, the building seemed to overflow with artifacts. Instead of enticing me to admire its treasures, I felt overwhelmed: Where to turn first? How to make sense of everything in this building? And how to make sense of each item in relation to every other item?
Our guide, Mohammed, didn’t hesitate. He walked down the hallway and stepped into a room, stopping in front of a glass case. For the next 45 minutes, Mohammed purposefully walked us from one item to the next, providing us with just enough context to bring a complicated history to life without flooding us with information.
Our final stop on the abbreviated museum tour was at the empty gilded shrine belong to Tutankhamun (King Tut). Tutankhamun is arguably the most well known of the Egyptian kings, in large part because his tomb was discovered intact in 1922 by Howard Carter. Mohammed painted a vivid picture of Carter’s discovery, explaining how the Egyptologist found the tomb, first by finding the steps, then entering one antechamber and then another and then another, until he finally breached the sarcophagus where Tutankhamun’s mummy had laid undisturbed for approximately 3,000 years.
Most Egyptian tombs had long been emptied, their priceless treasures stolen by raiders or moved to museums for safekeeping. But upon Carter’s discovery, Tutankhamun’s tomb was entirely intact.
“Why do you think that is?” Mohammed asked as we looked at the massive empty shrine, located just outside the room where many of the Tutankhamun tomb treasures were on display. “Of all the tombs in Egypt, why did this one remain untouched for thousands of years?”
The question stumped us, but before we had a chance to start blurting out random answers, Mohammed cut in again: “Think on it. We’ll answer this question when we get to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.”
Making Sense of Complexity
The world is a complex place, woven from a dynamic history of culture, environmental factors, political touchpoints, and chance encounters. With hundreds of tombs, temples, and significant sites, travelers often visit Egypt to see for themselves the evidence of an ancient civilization.
However, at the root of these countless artifacts dating back thousands of years remains a question: How can people best make sense of all of these dates, names, and events?
What can the tourism industry do to help tie all of this together in a meaningful way so that visiting sites doesn’t just become a list-checking exercise?
And, importantly, what can the tourism industry do to help tie all of this together in a meaningful way so that visiting sites doesn’t just become a list-checking exercise?
One way it can overcome this tendency is to take a page out of the playbook Mohammed used: As he walked us through the Egyptian Museum, our guide pointed out specific pieces and attributes that offered background and context for the rest of our trip throughout Egypt. He started a story about cartouches and a story about Horus, and he left us with a cliffhanger about Tutankhamun.
Tying it Together with Trip Cohesion
Intentionally or not, Mohammed took advantage of a storytelling opportunity I call trip cohesion.
Trip cohesion is a technique that takes advantage of the common storytelling arc, bringing context and meaning to separate trip elements by intentionally linking them with other elements. It strategically and intentionally carries a thread through part of or an entire travel experience or trip, thereby creating a story with a beginning, middle, and (possibly an) end.
Too often, travel experiences consist of seemingly disconnected experiences or pieces of information that don’t logically tie together. Travelers may realize all of these elements are relevant and related in some way, but the storytelling thread that connects them together is missing. Trip cohesion is the intentional creation of that thread, and it can be used on both a small scale (such as within a single site like a museum or on a walking tour) and a large scale (such as across a multi-day trip).
He essentially ended that visit with an ellipses and a promise to be continued — the tourism version of a 3,000-year-old page turner.
The lack of cohesion is one of the reasons why museums do not resonate with a lot of people. Museums may have a theme (art, aviation, natural history, etc.), but they fail to tell an engaging story about the theme through the pieces in the collection. Often, there is introductory text, which attempts to summarize the theme, perhaps making mention of a few key people or notable events. But without using this information to tell a story connecting one artifact with the next, the context remains separate from the items it attempts to showcase.
Similarly, walking tours that point out noteworthy sites in a city with key dates and names are interesting, but not particularly meaningful or memorable when they aren’t thoughtfully crafted in a way that is easy to recount, such as a story is.
In a place like Egypt, trip cohesion ties the many related but disjointed historical sites together in a meaningful way for travelers so that they can make sense of a time and place with which they have minimal personal connection. Mohammed used storytelling features at the Egyptian Museum to create a foundation of understanding and intrigue for other sites throughout our week in Egypt. He essentially ended that visit with an ellipses and a promise to be continued — the tourism version of a 3,000-year-old page turner.
Development of Trip Cohesion
There is a great need for more intentional and strategic trip cohesion throughout the tourism industry. As an avid traveler who lacks the capacity to make sense of information in the common names-and-dates fashion, I know trip cohesion when I encounter it — and I don’t encounter it nearly often enough. I will never be able to recall the names and dates about a subject, but when a destination or guide uses trip cohesion, I can recall the general story about the subject. Let’s face it, those names and dates in isolation aren’t all that interesting on their own anyway — and that’s the whole point.
Like any storytelling strategies, trip cohesion is an intentional practice. For some people, it might come naturally. But it is a strategy that can be used with intention, even for those who don’t consider themselves to be storytellers.
Like any storytelling strategies, trip cohesion is an intentional practice.
As you begin to integrate trip cohesion throughout your site, destination, or trip, keep the following in mind:
Not everything is going to be part of this story, and that’s okay. We don’t want to turn an enjoyable activity into a lecture. After all, nobody goes on holiday as a form of returning to the classroom.
Trip cohesion is a method for delivering information. Few things truly exist in isolation, so the goal is to think about how various elements might fit together in a way that makes them all more accessible for people who have no connection to or knowledge of them. But if there’s no common thread, that’s okay. Don’t force what doesn’t exist.
Additionally, don’t feel the need to provide an overabundance of detail. The Egyptian Museum held thousands of items in rooms we never even walked into. While those items are certainly meaningful in their own right, Mohammed’s decision to focus on a few key pieces and integrate them into the overarching story created across the duration of our week-long trip made the overall experience more memorable.
Tension is okay.
Sometimes the various elements or pieces don’t fit nicely together. There might be tension, and this might make people feel uncomfortable. Conflict is a natural part of storytelling.
For example, there are thousands of artifacts throughout Egypt that help tell the story of the pharaohs, but there are a lot of items that have been stolen by colonizers and explorers. Mohammed did not shy away from talking about elements we could not see as part of this overarching story simply because they were taken and still reside in places they do not rightfully belong.
The story may not have an end.
Though stories traditionally have a beginning, middle, and end, it is possible that there won’t be an ending when applying this structure to a travel experience. We live in an evolving ecosystem, and the story might still be taking shape and won’t be resolved. This is especially true if it is connected with some of the unresolved global challenges we’re facing in the world, such as the climate crisis.
Additionally, travelers might take what they’ve gotten from a trip and continue seeking information or participating in the story after a trip, such as by learning more about issues like human trafficking, fair trade issues, or conservation efforts in their own communities. This is an ideal situation, as the story surfaced via trip cohesion has been compelling enough that travelers want to be a part of the narrative. This is the story that keeps on giving.
Nearing the gates of the Valley of Kings, Mohammed explained that 63 tombs had been found buried beneath the desert hills. There wasn’t much to see if you simply looked at Valley of the Kings from above, but an x-ray of the landscape would reveal a web of pathways and chambers.
All of these tombs, and yet Tutankhamun’s remained untouched for thousands of years. “Why?” Mohammed asked. “Why did his tomb go undiscovered?”
The answer is in the land: Ramses VI’s tomb was located nearby, and its existence concealed the fact that Tutankhamun’s tomb was right beneath excavators’ feet. Tutankhamun may be found, but now a bigger question remains: What other unknown tombs and treasures might be hidden in the Valley of Kings?